The site consists of seventeen buildings in Muharraq City, three offshore oyster beds, part of the seashore and the Qal’at Bu Mahir fortress on the southern tip of Muharraq Island, from where boats used to set off for the oyster beds. The listed buildings include residences of wealthy merchants, shops, storehouses and a mosque. The site is the last remaining complete example of the cultural tradition of pearling and the wealth it generated at a time when the trade dominated the Gulf economy (2nd century to the 1930s, when Japan developed cultured pearls). It also constitutes an outstanding example of traditional utilization of the sea’s resources and human interaction with the environment, which shaped both the economy and the cultural identity of the island’s society.
Pearling, testimony of an island economy.
View of B? M?hir Seashore
© Herb Stovel
Outstanding Universal Value
The traditional sea-use of harvesting pearls from oyster beds in the Persian Gulf shaped the island of Bahrain’s economy for millennia. As the best-known source of pearls since ancient times, the Gulf industry reached the apex of its prosperity at the end of the 19th and beginning of the 20th centuries. The wealth of what had become a global trade is reflected in the development of the merchant quarters of Muharraq city. A few distinctive commercial and residential buildings remain as a testimony to this proud but dangerous and demanding economic activity which suffered a sudden and catastrophic demise in the 1930s as a result of the development in Japan of cultured pearls from freshwater mussels.
The property includes seventeen buildings embedded in the urban fabric of Muharraq city, three off shore oyster beds, and a part of the seashore at the southern tip of Muharraq Island, from where the boats set off for the oyster beds.
The architectural testimony comprises residential and commercial structures that are tangible manifestations of the major social and economic roles and institutions associated with the pearling society. Most of the structures have survived relatively unaltered since the collapse of the pearl industry in the early 20th century and bear witness to distinctive building traditions that the industry fostered, and particularly their high standard of craftsmanship in timber and plaster. These buildings evoke memories of that industry, its supporting social and economic structures, and of the cultural identity it produced.
Criterion (iii): The ensemble of urban properties, fort, seashore and oyster beds is an exceptional testimony to the final flourishing of the cultural tradition of pearling which dominated the Persian Gulf between the 2nd and early 20th centuries. Although the pearling industry has died, these sites carry the memory of its prosperity and the building traditions that it fostered.
The property reflects the buildings created as a result of the great prosperity of the pearl industry in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, and its economic structures. It also reflects the oyster beds upon which the prosperity was based and the seashore link between land and sea.
The choice of urban sites was limited by the neglect of the pearl industry’s heritage since the industry’s demise in the 1930s almost until the new millennium. As a result many buildings were demolished and those that remain have suffered from neglect and the adverse effects of new development around them. The urban sites chosen reflect extensive architectural, anthropological and historical surveys and are seen as those that carry the memory of the pearling industry for the local community. They variously reflect the key activities of merchants associated with the pearl industry as well as its building traditions.
The urban sites are thus islands within the city. They are still extremely vulnerable with many of the buildings needing extensive work to give them satisfactory stability. The oyster beds are not under threat and neither is the sea shore or fort.
To maintain integrity, great care will be needed in stabilising and conserving the structures so that the optimum amount of original fabric can be kept and traditional materials and processes are used. It will also be necessary to ensure that the sites can be seen to relate sympathetically to the wider urban structures within which they are embedded.
The authenticity of the property is related to its ability to convey the Outstanding Universal Value in terms of transmitting information about the social and economic process of the pearl industry. In terms of the buildings this relates to their ability to manifest their status, use, architectural form, local materials and techniques and their craftsmanship – particularly the exceptionally high quality of some of the craftsmanship deployed in timber and plaster work. Many of the urban buildings are highly vulnerable in terms of their fabric and decoration as a result of lack of use and maintenance. Any work will need to ensure minimum intervention in order that as much as possible of the original material is conserved so that the buildings may still provide tangible links to the decades of their former glory while being robust enough for use and a degree of access. For the fort there is a need to reverse some of the restoration of the last few decades and to re-introduce traditional materials.
The underwater oyster beds are still thriving, although there is nothing to convey their sea-harvesting traditions; the sea shore, although a fraction of what used to exist and now much compromised by later development nevertheless adds an important attribute, and is a focal point for important intangible cultural associations that relate to pearling. The fragility of the urban fabric presents a potential threat to authenticity as conservation, if overdone, could erase the memory that the buildings currently evoke.
Protection and Management requirements
The Bū Māhir Seashore and the individual sites in Muharraq all have national protection as designated national monuments under Decree Law No (11) of 1995 Concerning the Protection of Antiquities on 10 January 2010, and their future management resides under the Ministry of Culture. The three oyster beds and their marine buffer zone are currently generally protected at a national level in terms of Decree (2) 1995 with respect to the Protection of Wildlife; Legislative Decree No. 21 of 1996 in respect with the Environment (Amiri Decree); and Decree (20) 2002 with respect to the Regulation of Fishing and Exploitation of Marine Resources. A legislative decree that specifically designates the marine sites and buffer zone as a national marine protected area was approved in 2011.
In November 2011, the Ministry of Culture drew up a Vision for the development of old Muharraq – both the sites and the entire area of old Muharraq that surrounds them, which includes the buffer zone. This sets out a holistic approach for preserving the historic character of Muharraq under two key ‘perspectives’, legal and societal. The new laws to limit the increase in unplanned construction or population, prevent the deterioration of the special character of the urban fabric, and protect sites, urban settlements and antiquities should be in place at the end of 2013. The Societal framework will aim to assert the identity of the Old Muharraq area, through upgrading living standards; specific restoration projects and design guidance. This approach will allow for the buffer zone to be managed as the urban context for the sites and for them to be part of a living dynamic city.
A dedicated Site Administration Unit has been established within the Ministry of Culture to co-ordinate the implementation of the management system. The Unit, which reports to the Undersecretary for Culture, consists of an interdisciplinary team including researchers, conservation architects, an urban planner and rehabilitation specialist, a marine biologist and environmental specialist, a site manager for the urban properties and a GIS specialist, all supported by an administrative team which deals with finances, marketing, etc.
A Steering Committee has been established as the governing body of the management and administrative system for the properties. The Committee brings together at ministerial level, members of the 12 governmental agencies representing the full range of partners and stakeholders in the project, as well as representatives of the private owners of the Muharraq properties and the businesses in the urban buffer zone. The Steering Committee is chaired by the Minister of Culture. A Management Plan is in place for the property.
In order to address the challenges of restoring the fragile buildings within Muharraq, and maintaining them on an on-going basis, there is a need for training in traditional skills, particularly in woodwork and fine plaster techniques, and for the development of knowledge in traditional materials. The State Party has indicated its commitment to this training, at a practical site level and as part of university education. There will also be a need to ensure that the context of the sites is respected within urban Muharraq.